Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life
(2006) is a non-fiction biography
by British author and historian Hugh Brogan. Though a citizen of France, de Tocqueville is considered one of the most astute observers of the United States in the nineteenth century and is revered by American politicians for his seminal 1835 work, Democracy in America
. Brogan places due emphasis on de Tocqueville's time in America while also discussing de Tocqueville's thoughts and actions amid the political turbulence of his home country, France.
Born on July 20, 1805, de Tocqueville grew up in an aristocratic family. As a member of King Louis XVI's Constitutional Guard, de Tocqueville's father, Herve Louis Francois Jean Bonaventure Clerel, barely escaped the guillotine during the purges of the French Revolution. The experience was so traumatic for Herve that his hair turned white at the age of twenty-one. Nine other members of de Tocqueville's immediate family were imprisoned during the Revolution, including his mother, and six of those ten were executed. The author writes that this cast a dark shadow over an otherwise happy childhood for de Tocqueville, adding that he "was never able to shake off a certain nostalgia for this lost world."
At the age of twenty-five, de Tocqueville received permission from France's new constitutional monarchy to travel to the United States on a fact-finding mission to examine America's prison system and to bring back useful ideas to his home country. Accompanying him on the trip was his close friend, Gustave de Beaumont, a French magistrate and prison reformer. Brogan writes that while the two undoubtedly had an interest in exploring America, the real reason for their excursion was to escape the political turmoil that had arisen with the July Revolution that broke out in France a year earlier in 1830. An outspoken critic of the newly-installed July Monarchy, de Tocqueville was mindful of the terror visited upon his family during the earlier revolution and had no desire to risk political persecution himself.
Though de Tocqueville and Beaumont visited a number of prisons during their nine-month trek through America, they embarked on a much more expansive survey of the country, soaking up its political, religious, and cultural character as best they could. They journeyed deep into Indian lands, sleeping in tents and log cabins. They sailed down the Ohio River, crashing on its shores on at least one occasion. They partied in New York City before moving north to behold the natural splendor of Niagara Falls. No trip to America could be complete without witnessing firsthand the atrocities of slavery, which both disgusted de Tocqueville and suggested to him a bold prediction: that America would erupt in Civil War within the century.
After returning to France in 1832, de Tocqueville and Beaumont promptly submitted their report on America's penal system. Contrary to the fundamental sense of human empathy found in much of his writing, de Tocqueville expressed approval of the harshest depravations he witnessed in America's prisons. He wrote glowingly of America's penchant for whippings and hard forced labor but was perhaps most enamored with the practice of solitary confinement. "The mental punishment inflicted on [the prisoner]," de Tocqueville wrote, "fills his soul with a fear far deeper than that of whips and chains. Is it not thus that an enlightened and humane society should wish to punish?"
As a work of bureaucratic inquiry, de Tocqueville's research on prisons was considered a success. However, the book that made de Tocqueville a household name on both sides of the Atlantic came later in 1835. That book, Democracy in America
, was a comprehensive philosophical and political examination of the advantages and drawbacks of American democracy. Clearly enamored by the relative equality and liberty offered by the US Constitution, de Tocqueville sought to diagnose the potential challenges of maintaining such a system so that America—along with nations poised to follow in its footsteps—might best adapt democratic systems to messy realities. De Tocqueville also attempts to identify the reasons representative democracy had largely been a success in America despite failing in other countries.
On this subject, de Tocqueville points to America's founding by Puritans as having established an egalitarian context in which democracy could more easily thrive. The Puritans, de Tocqueville wrote, arrived in America with equal levels of education and economic class. Moreover, these settlers had broken free of the European model of primogeniture, which mandated that lands and titles be handed down from father to son. Though de Tocqueville admires the US Constitution and its framers, he suggests that the document is more the result of Americans' natural civic morals as established by the Puritans and not the other way around. For that reason, simply adopting the US Constitution in other countries was not enough to secure the successful spread of democracy. Moreover, de Tocqueville writes that the separation of church and state, perhaps paradoxically, allows the two to exist more harmoniously, unlike in France where the two are constantly battling one another in the sphere of power.
De Tocqueville also identifies two major threats to American democracy, both of which have arguably come to fruition since his writing. The first is what he coins "soft despotism," in which the people possess only the illusion of control over the government when in reality, the state is managed by a small cadre of elected and non-elected officials who manipulate the rules to their benefit in secret. The second is known as "the tyranny of the majority," which allows majorities to monopolize power at the expense of minority interests.
After publishing Democracy in America
and becoming something of an intellectual celebrity, de Tocqueville continued to work in the French government at a particularly turbulent time in French history. Brogan writes that de Tocqueville's actions as a French official often collided with his stated preferences toward personal liberty, as when he approved of laws restricting freedom of assembly and the press. In de Tocqueville's mind, these decisions were made because he favored order over chaos, prizing stability as a prerequisite for liberty to thrive. Brogan, however, admits that de Tocqueville's political ambitions may have won out over his sense of moral and civic values. Whatever the case, de Tocqueville's political ambitions came to a halt in 1851 after Napoleon III staged a coup and usurped power in France. Eight years later, de Tocqueville passed away after a long battle with tuberculosis.
In addition to offering up a comprehensive survey of de Tocqueville's impressively timeless political observations, Brogan's biography identifies fascinating points of tension between his subject's ideals and his actions.